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7 Brain-Boosting Effects of Exercise

Working up a sweat makes you smarter, less forgetful and happier

Downward Facing Dog and a Sun Salutation may help you zip through The New York Times crossword puzzle faster, according to new research from the University of Illinois.
The study, which included 108 adults between the ages of 55 and 79, showed improved accuracy on memory tests, greater mental flexibility and more efficient task switching after eight weeks of yoga. Researchers believe Hatha yoga’s focused breathing and meditation done while performing the poses may transfer to everyday functioning when multitasking and planning everyday activities.
This study is just one of many that show the brain-boosting benefits of exercise.
“Exercise reduces inflammation in the body and brain and promotes the release of growth factors, which favor neuron growth and preservation,” says Dr. Allen Towfigh, a board certified sleep medicine doctor and neurologist affiliated with Weill Cornell Medical Center/New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

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In addition, individuals who exercise regularly have better "brain volume," meaning a greater number of neurons, which allows for more effective brain function, Towfigh adds.
Keep these seven brain boosting benefits of exercise in mind for motivation to plan your next workout:

Regular exercise can help you remember where you put your keys and overcome other common everyday memory challenges. It does this by increasing the size of the hippocampus, part of the brain involved in memory forming, organizing and storing, according to a 2011 study. Aerobic exercise increased hippocampus volume by 2 percent, reversing age-related volume by one to two years. Short bursts of intense exercise coupled with one to two minute recovery periods, sometimes called ‘burst training,’ is one of the best ways to do this, says JJ Virgin, a fitness expert and author of The Virgin Diet.

Feeling anxious and stressed out can trigger a fight or flight response, in which bodies get us ready to escape a dangerous situation by fighting or fleeing, says Jade Teta, a naturopathic physician and co-author of The Metabolic Effect Diet. Being in this "ready for anything" state for too long can have a negative impact on health.

Regular exercise acts as effectively as certain medications for many people in reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety. In fact, a single workout can reduce symptoms for hours, and a regular workout schedule significantly lessens stress altogether over time.

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Regular exercise helps you stay on task, according to a 2013 study involving children with attention deficit disorder. A single, 20-minute exercise session improved the attention span of the young study participants. For best results, Virgin recommends combining burst training (short, high intensity exercise bouts) with resistance training. “Lift the heaviest weights you can in good form for eight to 12 reps,” she suggests.

Numerous studies show regular exercise improves mild to moderate depression, and plays a supportive role in relieving severe depression. In fact, one 16-week study showed exercise eased depression as much as the drug Zoloft. “Regular, intense aerobic exercise is a must for most people suffering from depression,” says Dr. Carolyn Dean, a medical advisory board member of the nonprofit Nutritional Magnesium Association. And, unlike antidepressants, exercise will not cause harmful side effects. One study found that 30-minute aerobic workouts done three to five times a week cut depressive symptoms by 50 percent in young adults.

A bike ride, swim or hike not only tones your body and benefits your heart, it also makes you feel better about yourself in general, says research involving 164 women ages 42 to 58. Exercise was shown to boost self-esteem and feelings of self-worth and attractiveness in the previously sedentary women. The scientists point out that healthy self-esteem is important for women in midlife, as menopausal women with low self-esteem tend to report more menopause-related complaints.

If you find yourself coming up with your best problem-solving solutions while out on your daily walks, you may be experiencing an association proven by science. A 2013 study shows exercise enhances creativity in individuals who work up a sweat on a regular basis. An earlier study showed a boost in creativity for up to two hours afterward. The bottom line: Make regular workouts part of your routine to reap the most creative benefits. 

It may sound counterintuitive, but getting outside for a walk can help you get more done at work. A 2011 study shows workers who make time for regular exercise benefit with more energy and productivity. Fit workers reported increased ability to work and less absence due to illness. Try a midday walk around the parking lot to boost afternoon productivity and to break up your day.

(MORE: Surprising Factors Affecting Workout Energy After 50)
In general, strive for 2-1/2 hours a week of moderate-intensity exercise such as brisk walking every week, and resistance training exercise two to three days of the week, recommends the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Keep in mind that doing 10-minute sessions a few times a day is as effective as doing one, 30-minute workout. Every little bit counts toward boosting brain health.

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